April-May 2005 in Italy and Malta
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April 24-27 Capri
May 6-7 Sicily, Scilla and Charybdis
May 7-8 Tropea (Capo Vaticano)
May 10-12 Abruzzi National Park
May 12 Tivoli, Villa Adriana
This morning we discovered that yesterday had been the birthday of our host, Michael, so we gave him our best wishes at breakfast.
The absolute highlight of the Malta trip was intended to be our visit to the Hal Salfieni Hypogeum at 11:00, which we had booked several weeks earlier by e-mail. The visit did not disappoint. Unfortunately, one is not allowed to take pictures there, so, for pictures I refer you to another Web site, which also has pictures and discussion of many of the other prehistoric sites of Malta.
The Hypogeum is only about 10 minutes from Marsaxlokk by road, but it proved quite hard to find in spite of the fact that there were several direction signs on the roads in nearby towns, and even in Paula, which is where the Hypogeum is. Eventually, we got directions from a pedestrian. We found we were very close, and parked a couple of streets away. One reason it's hard to find is that the entrance is an insignificant door in the wall of an ordinary residential street, and we were looking for something a bit more impressive and obvious. We might have passed it once or twice in our searching.
It was rather fortunate that we had allowed quite a lot of spare time for finding the place, because there is a long waiting list to get into the Hypogeum, and if you miss the time you have booked, there's essentially no opportunity for another try for days or weeks to come. When we were waiting in a small lobby to go into the temple, a couple came to see if they could get in, and were told that it would be possible only if someone didn't show up for their tour time. People are only allowed in ten at a time, eight groups per day, and all ten of our group were already present.
Our tour guide was involved with the archeological investigation of the temple, and during the tour, he sometimes contradicted the popular opinions about various aspects of the Hypogeum and the other temples, as well as offering his own opinion on some of their elements. For example, the initial exploration of the Hypogeum found the bones of about 7000 people, and it is therefore often considered to be a grave in which newly dead people were deposited. The official Web site even refers to the stench of decaying bodies. Our guide, however, said that the bones were from bodies that had been exposed above-ground, and were more carefully arranged than would be the case if individuals were simply dumped on top of one another when they died. He felt that it had more the character of a reverence for the bones of the ancestors than of a place to get rid of bodies.
One thing on which he differed from what we read on most Web sites about the temples was the stone "cannonballs", spheres on the order of 20- 40 cm in diameter. Nowadays, they have simply been dumped around the temples, in most cases with their original locations unknown. Most people seem to suggest that they served as ball bearings, supporting the megaliths being transported to the temple sites. Our guide pointed out that the stone of which they are composed was quite fragile, and would have shattered under the weight of the great megaliths, unless there were many times more of the stones than have ever been found.
His suggestion was that the stone spheres served a religious purpose, representing stars. In the Hypogeum, seven "cannonballs" had been found, and if one plots their locations within the temple, they were laid out like the stars of Ursa Major, the Big Dipper. Looking at the position of the Celestial Pole in 3600BC, this identification doesn't seem out of line. If you follow the inner part of the dipper handle its own length further, you come quite close to the position of the pole. It seems clear that all these megalithic temples and monuments had important solar and celestial alignments, and an ability to find the pole would have been quite handy. Using the "dipper handle" along with the arc of Corona Borealis, they could have estimated the pole position quite accurately. So it is not unreasonable to argue that the Ursa Major stars could have had some religious significance.
The guide pointed out another apparently significant astronomical alignment, relating to one of the other temples (I forget whether it was Tarxien or Mnajdra, but I think Mnajdra). Inside the Hypogeum, there are several chambers leading off one another. It's quite complex, and the chambers are separated by walls sometimes only 1 cm thick (one of them failed during construction, leaving a substantial hole where there should have been a wall beside a carved representation of a trilithon door with side niches). Deep inside, there is a chamber called "The Holy of Holies", inside which there is a carved hook as if intended to suspend something. Perhaps 30 m away, through several chambers, is the original entrance to the Hypogeum. Once per year, at sunset on the winter solstice, the sun shines through all the intervening chambers to cast its light on whatever was hanging on that hook. The above-ground temples also have solar alignments, but they tend to be related to sunrise and the equinoxes or the summer solstice. In particular, the above-ground "mate" of the Hypogeum (Mnajdra or Tarxien) has a similar alignment to the summer solstice sunrise.
The implication of the bones and of the solar alignments may be that the Hypogeum was a temple to celebrate death, while the above-ground temples celebrate life. This ties in with other elements of the culture, at least if it was a version of the old Balkan and later Minoan cultures, that it was a culture of regeneration. The dominant "spiral" or "snake" motif, both carved in stone and painted on the ceilings of the Hypogeum (link goes offsite) chambers, can easily be seen as a regenerative motif, one snake leading to another. The snake itself is a motif or regeneration, as it sheds its old skin to emerge as a new snake (as is the case with many of the carved spirals, both in Malta and in Ireland). The overall implication was, I felt, an acceptance and celebration of the cycles of the seasons, of life, that dying is an overture, not a finale.
From a personal point of view, I felt a spiritual presence in the Hypogeum such as I have felt only once before, when I was one of only two people in the great dome of the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul. In the Hypogeum, I felt that I could finally appreciate the old European religion, sometimes called, perhaps wrongly, the "Goddess" culture.
I repeat here what I said above, that the visit to the Hypogeum was the highlight of the trip to Malta. Indeed, if the Hypogeum had been the only thing we saw, the trip to Europe would have been worth while. I recommend anyone with an interest in ancient culture to try to see it at least once in a lifetime.
Gozo and Ggantija
Malta, the country, consists of two major islands and several smaller ones. The main islands are Malta and Gozo, which are linked by a frequent ferry service. So far, we had been only on Malta, but the oldest temple, the one first discovered by archaeologists, is on Gozo. So on our second day in Malta, that's where we went.
The Gozo ferry (at least the one we chose) leaves from the far west end of Malta. To drive there means going by way of Valetta (of course). The road west from Valetta along the north coast passes all the big tourist resorts, so it is a major highway, often four lanes, unlike most of the roads we eventually used on Malta. Apart from the blight of the big resort hotels along much of the shoreline, the drive is very beautiful, not as cliffy as the south coast, and as one goes west beyond the Valetta conurbation, with many small sandy bays. Toward the west end of the island, the road goes over a couple of reasonably high ridges before diving down to the ferry terminal, which is not in a town, but near which a big hotel complex is being built..
When we arrived at the ferry terminal, we were at the end of a line of cars, but we were lucky enough to get on the first ferry after only a short wait. If we had been a few cars later, we would have had to wait for the following one. It's a popular day trip from Malta to pop off to Gozo. One pays only for the trip back.
The ferry trip is not very long. It arrives in Gozo at the town of Mgarr (there is also a Mgarr on Malta). Leaving the ferry terminal, one goes through Mgarr up a steep hill, but is soon out of the country on the road to Victoria, the capital. Ggantija, however, is not there, but in a town called Xaghra (pronounced "Sharra"). Xaghra is not hard to find using the road signs, but we had to ask a local passerby how to find Ggantija, and even then we didn't arrive at it easily. In fact, we entered the park that includes the temple by the "back door" and never did find the official entrance. We did, however, find the ice-cream stall at the entrance to the actual temple site, it being a very hot day!
The spelling "Ggantija" isn't strictly accurate, since the first G should have a dot over it, making it soft, like the G in "generous". The second g is hard as in "girl", not having a dot over it, so the pronounciation is like "Gigantiya", which means what it sounds like. The 19th century discoverers thought it must have been built by giants, because the stones were so big that it seemed impossible for normal sized-humans to have moveed them. It was the first of the great megalithic temples to be discovered after thousands of years of disuse, and it was probably the oldest, having been built around 3600 BC. Hagar Qim and Mnajdra are 2-300 years younger. Also, of the ones we saw, it had the biggest stones, at least in its outer wall.
The above-ground temples all have a similar kind of plan: there is a straight central aisle from the entrance to a circular (or nearly so) court at the back of the temple. Off this central aisle are one or two pairs of side-courts, in the manner of chapels off the side of the main space in a Christian cathedral. Several of the temples have trilithon structures in one or more of these courts, the same structure as the much bigger trilithons at Stonehenge. You can see some in the "Inner court" picture above. I said "the above-ground" temples, because the underground Hypogeum is a much more complicated structure, though it has some similar characteristics.
After seeing Ggantija we went to Victoria, the capital of Gozo, where there was reputed to be a pleasant park. There was indeed a park. but it was rather small and a bit sad. It was almost the only place where we saw significant trees on Malta or Gozo, and there were some nice flower beds. But it was depressing to see a peacock in a cage so small that his tail fan of ratty feathers touched both side walls.
Beyond Victoria, we searched for a Neolithic cave dwelling site that was on our map. We searched quite carefully, climbing a dirt track and then up a hillside that was partly cut hay, partly thistles. We came to a wall around a private area, and the site might have been inside that wall. Anyway, we didn't find it, even though we asked a hunter who came up the same hill. He hunted birds there frequently, but he had never heard of the place. He did agree that we were at the correct map location. Eventually, we decided that we had to be content with having seen the view back over Victoria to Malta.
And with that, we drove back to Mgarr to catch the ferry to our guesthouse in Marsaxlokk at the far end of Malta. We tried quite hard to avoid going by way of Valetta, taking very small (and rough) roads around the south coast, but it was all in vain. As always, we wound up being directed to the big traffic circle at the entrance to Valetta.
In the evening, we had another very nice meal by the Marsaxlokk harbourfront. This van happened to be there. I thought the juxtaposition of the company name and the street address seemed rather exotic, though no doubt it would seem perfectly natural to someone more accustomed to Maltese usage.